Going By His Fashion Sense When It Comes To Suits‚ Maybe It’s A Good Thing That Cooper Isn’t A Superhero. Everyone In The City Might Go Blind From His Costume

Commissioned Interlude 11 – Civ-Touched (Summus Proelium)

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With a grunt, a dark-skinned man shut off the engine of his old pick-up truck in the dirt parking lot near a construction site, and leaned over to open his lunch pail in the passenger seat so he could toss in the Snickers bar he had picked up at the gas station while filling up. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror, he took a moment to admire his thick mustache, checked his receding hairline, and once again pondered simply shaving it all off, then looked up at the sound of another man calling his name in the distance. 

“Troy! You coming?” The speaker was a pale figure with twig-like limbs, a slightly pronounced gut, and long, red hair that was tied into a tight braid in order to keep it out of any machinery. He wore a hard hat and overalls, while idly waving a saw back and forth in his hand several times. To one side, three glowing blue energy constructs shaped like identical saws followed the same motion. 

Grunting an agreement, Troy Garey picked up his coffee and got out of his truck before stretching his arms up over his head. The lunch pail he had just tossed the candy bar into floated into the air behind him and began to follow, accompanied by a hard hat that had been lying on the floor. The latter settled itself onto Troy’s head even as he joined his partner. “Yeah, yeah, Cooper, I’m here. The party can get started.” 

Troy and Cooper were each what were known as Civ-Touched. While Star-Touched, Fell-Touched, and even Sell-Touched dressed up in costumes to run around playing superhero, villain, and mercenary respectively, Civ-Touched didn’t bother with that sort of stuff. Well, they didn’t make an ongoing habit of it, anyway. For the most part, they used their powers to do regular jobs. Or rather, to make regular jobs easier and more efficient. Some maintained identity-concealing ‘costumes’ mostly to avoid being hounded or threatened, while others were more open with their gifts. Troy and Cooper were two of the latter sort. They worked construction and simply did their jobs each day before going home. 

While they generally didn’t participate in the hero/villain games, many Civ-Touched would at least chip in if a Collision Point happened anywhere nearby. If nothing else, they assisted with the clean-up afterward, which was part of how damage caused by those events wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been. They were well-compensated for such help, though some didn’t accept such things. Others simply saw it as offsetting their lost wages and paying them for their time and effort. 

Either way, what Civ-Touched spent most of their time on was simply doing their jobs. They were quite often highly sought-after, and earned very good salaries depending on the usefulness of their powers, often multiplied by their competence with them and their actual skill-sets. But even quite minor powers, in the right industry, could be very useful. Troy, for example, knew one woman whose power only allowed her to operate normally and without any problems no matter what the temperature was. It could be negative fifty degrees or a hundred and fifty, and she would still be comfortable, suffering no ill-effects. A minor gift all around, yet she was paid quite well to do work in places like Antarctica or the Sahara Desert. 

After checking in with their site manager and getting their assignment for the day, Troy and Cooper made their way to the far side of the construction site. On the way, a bucket of long nails and a handful of two-by-fours began to float along behind them at a gesture from Troy. Cooper was still holding his saw in one hand, with the three duplicates floating to one side. Once they reached the right spot in the building the group was working on, the two of them spread out a bit. Troy focused on making each of the five two-by-fours line up properly in the spots that had been indicated with pencil lines, and held them in place with a thought. Another thought made several nails float out of the bucket and line themselves up in the right spots before being driven into each two-by-four all the way down the line when the man made a shoving motion. Another gesture brought more nails out before they too were driven into the wood. He was nailing the two-by-fours into place five at a time. 

Meanwhile, Cooper took up his own position at a table where several large blocks of wood had been laid out. As soon as he set down the saw he had been holding, the energy duplicates of it vanished, only to be replaced by duplicates of the measuring tape and subsequently the pencil he held. His own power didn’t allow him to turn off the effect of creating energy duplicates of any non-living object he held in his right hand. That was a large part of why he didn’t bother hiding his identity. It would have been an exercise in futility to never touch anything with that hand. Particularly given he was right-handed. He could at least control what the constructs did. Well, he could control where they were positioned and whether they duplicated his motion or just floated there doing nothing. But that was something. 

After measuring the first block carefully, he positioned his saw at the right spot. The three duplicate saws all moved to the same positions on other blocks, as the man began to saw the wood down to the proper sizes. Once they were done, the blocks would be ready for Troy to nail into place. 

Just another day as a Civ-Touched construction worker. But hey, at least they didn’t have to worry about making themselves look good in those tights and spandex things. Troy had absolutely no interest in squeezing his own body into something like that unless it was Halloween. And even then, only as a joke. Which meant he didn’t have to go on a diet just to look good in that stuff. 

Speaking of which, hey, they were supposed to meet up with the others that night. 

*******

Nadia Campbell was a small black woman who was often mistaken for being a good ten or twelve years younger than her actual age of thirty-two. With her slender form and quite youthful face, she was still carded when going into clubs or buying alcohol. Not that she did much of the former outside of being dragged along to parties by friends, or as part of research for her job. 

It was that same job she was doing right now, while standing in the kitchen of the restaurant she owned. Or rather, co-owned. Technically, she could have purchased it outright, but the woman preferred not to do any part of the business which involved talking to investors, dealing with delivery people or employees, or simply being a public face in any way. She just wanted to do her work and be done with all of that extra nonsense. Nadia didn’t hate people, she simply didn’t care for them all that much. She bore them no ill will, yet had no desire to know or interact with them for the most part. She was perfectly fine with people doing whatever they wanted, so long as what they wanted didn’t hurt anyone else, and they did it somewhere away from her. Be free and happy, but do it out of earshot. 

Perhaps someone might have found it odd that a person with that sort of opinion had gone into a business involving serving food to many strangers. But that, of course, was not what her job was. Other people focused on taking orders and serving the food. Her job was to make it. Or rather, to design it. 

Standing there in her kitchen, several hours before the restaurant would open for the day, Nadia studied the pot in front of her. An array of various meats, vegetables, and spices were laid out on the counter to one side. Packing up a clean knife, she cut several quick bits of meat off a long piece of sausage and scoop them into the pot along with the broth. After another thought, she added several piles of diced onions, then sprinkled in a bit of spice from one of the shakers. A dash of this, then a toss of that, followed by adjusting the temperature on the burner before adding just a tad more spice, and she used a wooden spoon to take a small taste. 

It was, unsurprisingly, delicious. That was her gift, literally. She was essentially a Tech-Touched, yet not in the way that most were. She didn’t build machines. Her power revolved entirely around cooking. She could, entirely without measuring or reading any recipe instructions, create perfect, incredible meals. She did so intuitively, but always had a camera (or several) recording everything she did so that it could be reconstructed and the actual recipe written out. 

She didn’t only make money off what the restaurant sold. Though that by itself was quite enough to bring in a decent income for her. She also sold her recipes to other restaurants across the world, which helped to take her from being relatively well off for someone in the restaurant business, to being outright rich. If she wanted to, Nadia could have been much better known than she was. She could have run around playing cooking celebrity, like that Ramsay fellow. But that sort of thing didn’t interest her at all. She preferred working in relative secrecy. Most people didn’t even know that what she did involved having a power at all. They simply thought she was a very talented chef.

She quite enjoyed the challenges of matching what was available in various other areas, with dietary restrictions, ingredients they could have on hand, and so forth in order to make something new that would impress people. Stretching her gift to create delicious offerings when relatively little was available was one of her favorite things to do. She had standing requests from small restaurants in many remote regions of the planet to help them design new, unique meals using what little they had access to. Not only restaurants, but certain governments and aid organizations as well. The military had had her redesign some of their MREs to help make them more palatable while still lasting for years. 

After adding a tiny bit of shredded carrot, the woman paused as the phone on the wall rang. She didn’t carry a cell phone with her, preferring not to have what amounted to an electronic leash in her pocket. If she wasn’t near a phone when someone wanted to call her, they simply had to wait until she was. She still used an old-fashioned answering machine in her condo. Now, she stepped that way and picked up the phone, hitting the button to answer. “You’re two minutes early, you’ll have to wait until it’s done.” 

There was a brief pause before a man’s voice replied, “I called early because I wanted to ask how you are. And what you’re doing this weekend.” 

“The same thing I do every weekend, Claudio,” Nadia retorted while carefully watching the pot. “Not working for a couple of spoiled billionaires and their children.” Claudio was the main chef for the Evans family. He had worked for her for several years before they scooped him up, something she still had not forgiven them for. Claudio had great potential, and was good at talking to people. Better than she was, not that that was hard. Still, she had thought to make him one of her partners before he ended up leaving to go work for Sterling and Elena. Pah. “So if you think you’re going to tempt me to work one of their ridiculous parties–” 

“No, nothing like that,” Claudio assured her. “I know how you feel about them, believe me. This isn’t about the Evans–or… not exactly.” 

Frowning at the pot as she gave it another stir and turned the heat lower, Nadia replied, “What is it about then?” 

Over the next few minutes, the man told her about the young girl the Evans were working to adopt. He wanted to prepare a special dessert for the girl, something unique and perfect to celebrate if she agreed to the adoption. Or just for fun if she didn’t. Either way, he wanted something she had never tasted before, something none of them had tasted before. 

Nadia might have had no interest in serving or working for the Evans themselves, but some lost little girl who was being adopted by them? That was different. After a moment of hesitation, she finally sighed and turned off the burner for her soup before moving to start pulling out ingredients for pastries. “Let me see what I can come up with. 

“But you owe me. And you can pay me back by meeting with my investors tomorrow so I don’t have to talk to them. And don’t call me back for this tonight.

“I have plans.”  

*******

Standing in the middle of an empty living room, a lightly tanned man with a neatly trimmed beard, dark curly hair that was worn down to his shoulders, and piercing blue eyes faced the young, handsome couple. The two recently married men held one another’s hands, clearly deeply in love as they looked around the open space. “It’s so perfect,” one murmured. “That window over there, that’s facing east, right?” 

The dark-haired man, whose name was Collyn Elliot, gave an easy nod. “Yup, that is east, which means it catches plenty of sun in the morning. And that makes the room look quite beautiful, particularly if you go with that soft, yellow color scheme you were talking about.” As he spoke, the man gestured, and the walls of the room immediately went from being white, to being a warm goldfield color. Another gesture turned the gray carpeting into a brown that went well with the walls. There were no curtains against the windows, yet with a look from the man, a pair of sheer white ones appeared where they should have been. 

The curtains weren’t real. Nor was the color on the walls or carpeting. It was all illusions. Collyn’s power allowed him to somewhat change the appearance of any non-living material he was in the same general area of, such as the colors of the floor and walls here. He could also create minor holographic-additions, such as the appearance of curtains, furniture, and so on. The illusions were incapable of moving in any way, and were not solid. But it worked quite well for allowing him to do his jobs as both an interior decorator and real estate agent. Anyone who wanted to know what a place would look like with a new dresser, a different coat of paint, or anything like that could find out for certain if that’s what they wanted without doing anything permanent or strenuous. It really helped him sell or rent places out when he could prove to someone just how good their dream home would look once they put a bit of work into it. Maybe he didn’t use his power to run around as one of those costumed heroes (or villains, but he liked to think that if it was one or the other, he’d be a good guy), but at least he still enjoyed his work, and made a decent living off of it. 

And, as an added bonus, he wasn’t risking his life every time he went out to do his job. That was definitely a benefit. Not that he liked to think of himself as a coward, just… He wasn’t looking forward to facing injury or death all the time. No, using his power this way was quite enough excitement for him. Particularly considering what a comfortable living it made for him. It turned out that being able to see exactly what they were going to end up with after their work was done made people willing to pay a little extra. Not an absurd amount. He didn’t want to completely gouge his customers using something that was relatively easy for him. Just a little bit more than he’d normally get, enough that he could afford a nice place and decent things. And, he’d been able to set his parents up in a nice retirement community down in Florida where they could enjoy their golden years. For a family that had, throughout his childhood, struggled to put food on the table no matter how hard his father worked at that thankless factory job, that was incredible. Gaining these powers when he was a junior in high school fifteen years earlier had been a turning point for his entire life. It gave him stability and direction. Hell, before he’d Touched, he had been a bit of a delinquent. He’d had no idea what he was going to do with his life. But ever since he’d seen that orb behind the bleachers when he’d been looking for a place to smoke some weed, there had been real change in his life. Real growth. 

Shaking those thoughts off, Collyn listened as one of the practically-honeymooning couple asked what the room would look like with a nice entertainment center and two leather chairs in one corner, near the fireplace. With a smile, he carefully adjusted the illusion to create just that, shifting through several colors and styles until he settled on one they both quite liked. At another question, he added a small bookshelf to one side with an assortment of novels within, and a few knicknacks on top. With a couple paintings and photographs of the couple added along the walls, and a change of the carpet to a deep red and the walls a light tan color, the men were more than satisfied. They took several pictures of what the place would look like once the redecorating was done, before moving on to the next room. 

Before long, that meeting was over and he had made another sale. The men would need to visit the bank and go through some paperwork, but he was confident they would follow through. Which meant that was another commission in his pocket. Or would be soon enough. Maybe he’d indulge himself and pick up that fancy new refrigerator and stove he’d been looking at the other day.  He’d talked to Nadia Campbell for a few minutes the other day (about as long as someone like Nadia could ever stand to talk to anyone), and apparently she swore by them. Anything that was good enough for Nadia, when it came to stuff in the kitchen, was good enough for him.

And hey, maybe he’d even call his parents and see how they were doing. His mother had been bugging him to do that more often, and he got a kick out of the breathless way she would describe the scandalous outfit she saw being paraded around the nearby beach. In fact, speaking of scandalous outfits on the beach, maybe it was time for an in-person visit. 

Though, of course, that was for later. Tonight, he already had plans. 

*******

Even with a brief glance, it would be apparent that there was something different about the figure walking along the small side trail in the zoo. The path was labeled for employees only, as it led behind some strategically-placed bushes and to the rear door of the reptile house. As for the figure itself, one of the notable things was that it was made of mud. Hard-packed mud, shaped into a roughly six-foot figure with a clearly androgonyous appearance, along with four arms. The two lower limbs, near the hips, carried bags of reptile food. The two higher ones, up where they should have been, held a coiled length of hose and a shovel. Little bits of mud were left behind wherever the figure walked, only to quickly shlurp themselves back up into the feet of the body so no mess was left behind. 

Just that by itself, the four-armed mud golem would have attracted attention. Then there was the fact that its head wasn’t a head at all. 

Its head was a turtle. 

Yes, where the mud golem’s head should have been, a ten-inch-long African sideneck turtle perched and was held in place by the mud. A small radio was positioned directly in front of and slightly under the turtle, in the golem’s neck, with the speakers visible through a hole in the mud. Wires led up to the turtle’s own neck, visible if one looked closely enough while its small head was turning one way, then the other. 

As the turtle-headed golem reached the entrance into the reptile house, the door was opened by a uniformed staff member heading the other way. She immediately smiled and stepped aside, gesturing. “Morning, Venus. You catch Darkline last night?” 

The voice in response was projected through the speaker in the golem’s neck, while Venus, the turtle, shook her head back and forth a little. “Good morning, Polly. Please don’t spoil it, I was busy with a project. But it’s recorded. I’ve got a can of sardines just waiting for me to cozy up with tomorrow.”

Making a show of zipping her fingers across her lips to illustrate that she wouldn’t say anything, Polly promised, “I’ll have my phone with me after you see it and want to talk about–eh, things.” Winking then, she gestured. “I’m gonna head over to see what Bryce wants me working on next, let me know if you need anything.” 

Venus promised to do just that, before heading in through the door that the woman was still holding open. Within the reptile house, she immediately set to work feeding the animals, as well as scooping and cleaning out cages. The whole time, she talked to the reptiles. Not that they understood her, of course. But it still made her feel better. 

At one point, she had been just like them. She was an animal in the zoo. Actually, her own cage had been right over in the corner of this same room. Maybe that was why she always volunteered to be the one who cleaned these ones out, and why she felt so comfortable here, even if the other animals didn’t understand her. 

Then the orb had arrived. And ever since she had touched her beak against the side of that glowing ball in an attempt to figure out if it was food, Venus had been changed. Her intelligence was drastically increased to put her on par with humans, she was given an immediate understanding of the English language, and she was capable of manipulating mud. Well, technically she was able to control both water and dirt to a limited extent. But her true strength came when she mixed them. If she stretched herself, Venus was capable of controlling a mud golem body twice this size. But she preferred to keep it roughly human-sized in order to avoid freaking people out too much. After all, being what she was, she already had an uphill battle when it came to being accepted. At least, as far as outsiders went. Her own workmates were, for the most part, quite understanding. Even if there was a bit of strangeness when it came to the fact that most of them had actually taken care of her when she was an ordinary animal. 

Perhaps she could have done more as one of those superheroes on the streets. But Venus didn’t think she was that brave. She just wanted to work with the people and animals right here in the zoo where she had spent her entire life. Besides, even at its strongest, her power wasn’t that impressive. She could make a large mud golem (of a humanoid or other figure) and control it quite well, like an extension of her own body. But even the big version wasn’t strong enough to be that much of a threat in the grand scheme of things. 

Or maybe she was just too afraid of what could happen if she got hurt. Either way, Venus preferred to stick to her ordinary job and her friends. Though speaking of those friends, she did have plans for that evening. 

She just hoped Nadia wouldn’t mind if she brought back some leftovers for some of the other turtles and lizards to try. 

*******

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer we eat outside on the patio?” That evening, Venus tentatively asked that while her golem stood awkwardly near one of the restaurant tables. It was after hours, and the rest of the staff had been sent home a bit earlier than they normally would have been. Not that most of them wouldn’t have been just fine helping out with this, but it was something that the restaurant’s owner preferred to take care of herself. 

Speaking of that owner, Nadia Campbell made a scoffing sound under her breath while shaking her head. “Nonsense. You have perfect control over that mud of yours, and I trust you not to leave any sitting around.” Pointing with her wooden spoon, she added, “Just don’t make me regret that trust. And that goes for all of you.” Her gaze moved from the turtle TONI to the other three members of their little dinner party, the two construction workers, Troy and Cooper, and the interior decorator/real estate agent, Collyn Elliot. There were other Civ-Touched in Detroit, of course. But this was their own group. They had started out by meeting each other at a group meeting for people like themselves, Touched who felt a little guilty about not using their powers in a more proactive, heroic sense. Or who simply wanted others like themselves to talk to. They had met, hit it off, and begun interacting more outside of the group meetings. That by itself was how Troy had made sure Cooper got a job at the same construction firm he worked at. 

Where exactly they went and what they did varied, of course. Sometimes they even spent time at the zoo, when it was Venus’s turn to be in charge of the activities. But everyone enjoyed the nights when Nadia took control, because she inevitably fed them delicious food until they were stuffed to the point of barely moving. It was like a mini-Thanksgiving, only once every six weeks or so.

Troy, who didn’t have a lot of good suits, still managed to dress up fairly nicely in crisp dark red slacks and a black button up shirt. He thought about wearing a tie to one of these things, but the first time he put one on, it felt as though the damn thing was choking him. So, he’d decided that this would have to be good enough. Cooper, meanwhile, wore an old suit that had belonged to his father. Which meant that it wasn’t exactly a current suit. The pants and jacket were Easter egg blue, and he also wore a bright pink shirt under that. Cooper claimed that the suit was lucky, because he always attracted attention in it. Everyone else believed that second part, anyway.

Then there was Collyn, who was the only one at the table who wore regular high-end clothes to these things. His suit and silk shirt were perfectly tailored and came from one of the most expensive places in town. So, it might have seemed odd that he wore what looked like a child’s tie that was Blue with a lot of little green turtles all over it. But the tie had been given to him as a present from Venus, so of course he was going to wear it to these dinners. He’d also worn it the last time he visited his parents down in Florida, just to make his mother laugh. Looking good for customers so they believed they could trust you to sell them a good home was one thing, but making his friends and parents smile just because he wore a silly tie? That was important as well. And, of course, he liked to remind himself not to take himself too seriously sometimes. 

It was just too bad that his powers didn’t work on anything that was moving, or he might have worn the tie all the time and simply covered it when necessary.

Finally, the last member of their group besides their host was, of course, Venus herself. Her mud golem was still standing at attention nearby, wearing a somewhat loose-fitting old suit of its own. It looked like a dirty mannequin, given the lack of a head. With the sound of wet, moving mud, the thing reached up to the turtle who sat in place of that head, gingerly picking her up before putting her down on the table so it could step away. Venus, for her part, wore a tiny pink bowtie on her small neck, and her shell had been decorated with a few paper stars with colorful glitter on them. They had been taped on by a couple close friends at the zoo, who were delighted when Venus had asked them to make her pretty. 

Nadia, who wore her simple, yet effective chef’s uniform, clapped her hands once. “We have soup and salad coming straight away, but of course, there is another matter to handle first. Everyone chip into the envelope.” 

The envelope, in this case, sat open on the table, waiting as the assorted group produced whatever cash they could spare and tucked it away inside. Even the golem, under Venus’s direction, pulled out a wallet from the middle of its chest and selected several bills to push inside. Nadia tucked money into the envelope as well, because it wasn’t for the dinner they were having. Instead, the money would be collected from their group and others like them, then distributed to various organizations in order to provide the same sort of services that had brought them together in the first place. 

And it went to more than simply keeping the lights on and the tables at those group therapy sessions stocked with punch and cookies. The money also went to help runaway Touched who had no solid family system, and who didn’t want to risk their lives playing superhero (or villain) just to make money. Many people thought that Touching meant you were set for life, except sometimes it wasn’t so easy to translate those powers into a job, and if you didn’t want to be part of the violence and risk injury or worse, they didn’t always help. Even if they did, it was sometimes hard to find the right job to do with them. That was where these organizations stepped in and helped. Organizations like Keeping Our Teen Touched Safe, or KOTTS. Although some in KOTTS were definitely and firmly against anyone under the age of eighteen participating in that sort of violence at all, as a whole the organization was devoted to helping those who simply did not want to be part of it. It had been founded in New York City by a man whose son was killed while part of the very first Minority team, before they were even officially called that. The man had once barely paid attention to his son, until that son went off to prove himself and ended up being brutally murdered by the villain known as Casket. That had resulted in Casket being one of the very first prisoners sent to Breakwater, as well as the establishment of the official Minority system, and the formation of KOTTS. 

Once everyone had contributed to the envelope, Nadia sealed it up and promised to put the thing in the dropbox the next morning. Then she called for Cooper’s help while heading for the kitchen. Excusing himself, the man followed. 

While the two of them were gone, Troy quickly hopped up and gestured for help. “Come on, she said she put it over here behind the bar.” Together, he and Collyn moved that way for a moment before returning with a large black cardboard box, which they showed to Venus before setting on the table. 

After another few seconds, they were ready. Which was just in time, as Nadia and Cooper began coming back. The man was talking. “Seriously, that’s really not like you, like, ever. You always know exactly how much longer your stuff has to cook, so I’m not sure how you could mess up the–” He stopped talking abruptly at the sight of the box on the table. Or rather, what had been in the box. It was a large, clearly homemade cake with ‘Happy Graduation’ written across it. As soon as he saw it, the assorted group, including Nadia behind him, called out, “Surprise!” 

“What th–how… how the hell did you guys know it was graduation?” Cooper stammered. The pale, red-haired man was gaping at the cake. “It’s online courses and I didn’t tell–” He stopped before realizing. “It was my mother, wasn’t it?” 

With a grin, Troy nodded. “She called the work site last week wanting to ask you when the virtual ceremony was. Come on man.” He punched his friend in the shoulder. “We knew you were taking classes, but I thought you had another six months to go.”

Flushing a bit with embarrassment, Cooper replied, “Aw, I didn’t want anyone making a big deal out of it. It’s not like I’m graduating from some fancy pants Ivy League school with a doctorate or anything. It’s just some dumb online courses.” 

“Hey, don’t you put yourself down,” Troy interrupted. “You know the rules. We don’t do that.” 

Bobbing her little turtle head, Venus agreed, “That’s part of the no-more box. We threw that in the hole and buried it, remember? And it is a big deal. You’ll have a… an associates degree in… what was it called?” 

“Project Management,” Cooper informed her, still blushing as red as his hair. “I just, you know, went with the foreman to one of those client meetings once and they liked a couple things I said, and it felt good. So, I thought maybe I’d get a degree in that and see how it went. You know, just to see if I could maybe push myself into a promotion.” His eyes widened then, before he focused on Troy. “Err, not that I don’t love the work we do–” 

“Stop it,” Troy interrupted. “Sure, we have fun out there. But if you can get a better job that doesn’t make you bust your ass all the time, you go for it.” 

Nadia agreed. “If you have ambition, you should indulge it and see where it can take you. Don’t be ashamed of wanting more.” 

There were murmurs of agreement from the others, before Cooper thanked them profusely. Rubbing the back of his neck a little self-consciously, he pointed out, “Of course, my entire career might fall apart before it even starts if the clients I’m supposed to talk to think it’s weird when stuff like this happens.” He picked up a fork in his right hand, gesturing as three more glowing energy-construct duplicate forks appeared nearby. “It’s not like I can turn it off.” 

Collyn scoffed at that. “Are you kidding me? I’ve got plenty of clients who would think that was amazing. They’ll be asking you to hold all sorts of stuff just to see what happens. It’s the perfect simple little parlor trick. Doesn’t hurt anybody, but it looks really cool. Believe me, you’ll do fine. In fact, I’ve got a few phone numbers for you to share with your boss. You tell him, if he takes you with him to those meetings and lets you show him what you can do, you’ll bring in plenty of new business. You guys design and build the stuff, and I can find the right people to buy it.” 

The others all agreed that they would help in any way they could, though their own contributions probably wouldn’t be as important as finding new clients the way Collyn could. Still, Cooper gratefully accepted all of it, before his eyes slid to Nadia. “Ah, I know dessert’s supposed to be last–” 

“We’ll make an exception this time,” she informed him. “Why else do you think I planned for my food to take another half hour before it’s ready? I don’t make mistakes like that.” Making a scoffing sound at the very suggestion, she produced a knife from behind the nearby bar. “Now then, let us cut your cake. Don’t you worry, Venus. I have a perfect worm-trout pie for you. I can’t wait until you try it.

“And yes, I have extra for you to take back to your old friends at the zoo.” 

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